On a cool, almost rainy morning the Sunday before Memorial Day weekend, a motley flotilla of 730 canoes and kayaks gets launched ten at a time into the Des Plaines River at Oak Spring Road in Libertyville. Paddled by one-, two-, and three-member crews, the boats head south between muddy forested banks, past golf courses and country houses. Their goal is Dam Number Two in Prospect Heights, the finish line of the 19.5-mile Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon every year since Ralph Frese started the race in 1958 as a Boy Scout excursion.

Some paddlers maintain a vigorous 65 strokes a minute or more and reach Dam Number Two in under three hours. Others paddle just enough to keep the canoe or kayak moving while they talk with buddies in other boats, watch for birds onshore, or munch trail mix. In boat 45–a number assigned in honor of this, the 45th running of the canoe marathon–sits the 75-year-old Frese, paddling on the back bench. His wife, Rita, is perched in the front, talking to her son by cell phone. Boat 45 is a dark green Old Town “Canadien” model, the equivalent of a Fourth of July parade’s grand marshal float.

People in other boats call out greetings, jokes, and salutes to Frese. “Hey, Ralph, look at our boat,” one middle-aged father says from a red canoe he’s paddling with his teenage son. “We got it from you seven years ago, and we’re keeping it in good shape.” Another calls out, “Ralph, this is my daughter. Erica, this man got the whole race going.” A third warns, “Hey, everybody, don’t ram the guy in the green canoe. He’s the king of this race.” To which Frese replies, “King? Maybe the grandfather.”

Frese is a fourth-generation blacksmith raised on the northwest side. When he grew up, he gradually turned his father’s blacksmith shop, located at 4019 N. Narragansett, into the Chicagoland Canoe Base, which sells and rents canoes and kayaks, and himself into a leading advocate of river and stream restoration. The canoe marathon he founded has turned into an annual confab for paddling athletes, environmentalists, and recreation-minded families.

The serene thrill of paddling first grabbed Frese when he was 14. The son of German immigrants–both his father, Karl, and his mother, Mina, grew up in Germany–Ralph spent his boyhood looking at frogs and other wetland wildlife in a swampy undeveloped tract around Natchez and Roscoe. When a neighbor boy joined the marines during World War II and left behind a canvas kayak he’d built in a Lane Tech shop class, Frese offered the guy’s dad $15 for it, then talked his fishing buddy into splitting the cost.

“The first place I ever launched was the Riis Park lagoon,” at Fullerton and Narragansett, Frese recalls. “The first time I was afloat, I was admiral of my own navy. There were fish in there and it was a beautiful spring day, and I was out there daydreaming.” That is, until a cop told him to get his boat out of the water.

In his father’s shop, Frese made a little trailer to tow the kayak behind his bike and took to pedaling three miles west on Irving Park to Schiller Woods, where he could launch on the Des Plaines. “I’d disappear down the river and spend my afternoons on the water,” he says. “I learned it all by trial and error, because my parents had never been in such a boat. But I learned. I’ve only capsized about three times in my entire life.” Later in his teen years, Frese and a buddy bought a canoe-building kit from Mead Gliders, a company downtown that he says ruled the canoe industry then.

After basic training near the end of World War II and a brief stint studying engineering at IIT, Frese joined his father in the blacksmith business, forging tools for tradesmen. When he was about 24 years old and married to his first wife, his father-in-law asked him to help with a Boy Scout troop—an ironic request because his own father, who fought for Germany in World War I, was dead set against any organization that required a uniform.

“So what do I know about scouting?” Frese says. “I just wanted to take the kids adventuring with me on the rivers, so I’d borrow boats and take them all out.” Eventually he and a friend figured out how to make a mold for a fiberglass canoe and began teaching scouts and other groups how to make them. “We made 500 or 600 canoes from that mold,” he says. He also started teaching other scout leaders how and where to canoe with their troops. “Then one day I had this crazy idea,” he says. “There’s a stretch of the Des Plaines that I knew was beautiful. So let’s have some fun competition and see how nice it is out there.”

In the five decades he’s been teaching Chicagoans to paddle, renting them canoes, and pushing government to tout the recreational value of local waterways, Frese has also exerted an extensive influence over the region’s ecological profile.

“There are a lot of people who go to church on the rivers around Chicago, and Ralph’s our bishop,” says Gary Mechanic, director of the Access Project of the Illinois Paddling Council, a group Frese helped found over 30 years ago. “The rivers and watersheds of Illinois really matter to him, both as places for recreation and as cultural values, and he’s been tenacious about showing them to other people. He’s been a missionary.” That vocal promotion has convinced Chicagoans over the years that “they don’t have to drive three times as far as they’re going to paddle just to get into a river,” Mechanic says. “They can get in right here in the city and paddle through the neighborhoods and see the grandeur of the skyline rise up before them, or they can get into the Du Page River where it’s a tiny stream through the woods.”

The advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River is the result of Frese taking a Chicago magazine reporter out for a paddle on the then friendless river: the original group was formed by readers of Robert Cassidy’s 1979 article. And for more than three decades, Frese was a prime mover on the Cook County Clean Streams Committee, a group that started hauling trash out of the waterways long before the forest preserve districts and other governmental bodies made it a priority.

Frese is now involved in trying to hatch seedlings from a pair of red pine trees that stand on bluffs over the Fox River near Sheridan, Illinois. Chicago Botanic Garden curator of woody plants Peter Bristol says that the southern reach of the red pine’s natural range is around the Wisconsin Dells. If he manages to grow trees from the seed Frese collected, some will be raised at the botanic garden and some at or near the parents, which have survived despite environmental challenges. Bristol says, “There are more pressures on them now, with climate change and acid rain. Plants that are on the edge of their growing zone, like these, definitely are under more pressure. So it’s of some concern that we help nature along by growing a seed crop, reintroducing the plants back to that habitat, and protect them.”

In the early 1990s Frese helped start the Lower Fox River Coalition, a federation of paddlers, nature groups, and scout groups that works to publicize the history and value of the animals, plants, and landscape along the Fox in La Salle and Kendall counties. “Many people in Chicago have no idea that such a place as the lower Fox River exists in the midwest,” Frese says. “There’s a 30-foot waterfall, and caves you can paddle into and go back 60 feet, and sandstone bluffs millions of years old. It’s all under pressure from commercial interests.”

Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, says, “Ralph was out there when nobody really believed the rivers could be brought back to life and be recreational assets. He’s had his paddle in on so many issues, most of us can’t even guess what all of them are.” She describes Frese as “tireless and a passionate believer.” Others say “tenacious,” and some cross the line over to “stubborn” and “hardheaded,” though they won’t say so on the record. As one friend puts it, if it’s an issue about paddling, environmental protection, or even how to file paperwork at the store, “There’s only Ralph’s way and the wrong way.”

Letting the rivers speak for themselves is key to Frese’s approach; he believes that anyone who gets out onto one of our local waterways in a canoe or kayak will inevitably appreciate its wonders, its history, and its potential for recreation. But first someone has to get us out of our land-based lives and into a boat. Frese is happy to rent you one, sell you one, or show slides of what it’s like to be out in one. “Ralph’s canoe base is like a community center for people who love the rivers, not just a place where you buy a pair of paddles,” von Klan says.

Like anyone who’s spent a lifetime on a single subject, Frese sees the whole world through its lens. Ask where he lives and he tells you which stretch of the Chicago River his house is near. (Short answer: he lives in Niles with Rita, whom he met more than 21 years ago—on a canoe trip, of course.)

Sit with Frese for an hour in the paper-crammed office at the back of his store and he’ll deliver a passionate monologue covering everything from the particulars of Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette’s 17th-century route through the region’s rivers and lakes to Chicago’s heyday pre-World War II as a canoe-manufacturing center to the ins and outs of getting various river cleanups funded to the exact number of boats in each of the first few Des Plaines River marathons (25 the first year, 106 the second, 156 the third).

“Remember, we were discovered by canoe—the only reason Chicago is here is a canoe portage,” Frese says. What he means is that what is now 47th Street around Harlem was the shortest overland route from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Portaging was easiest there, between the South Branch of the Chicago River and the Des Plaines, than anywhere in Wisconsin or Michigan, so in the 18th century white traders and others began congregating in what is now Chicago. For centuries, Native Americans and white trappers and explorers traveled all over the midwest in canoes, which were suited to the area’s shallow, meandering rivers and streams.

Frese believes canoes and kayaks are the ultimate ecologically sensitive form of long-range travel. “You saw about 2,000 people going down the Des Plaines by boat,” he said shortly after the race. “And just a few minutes after the last boat passed, after the last ripples died down, there was no trace that a single person had been on the river. Now, along the way there were trees leafing out and spring wildflowers everywhere. That’s what I wanted everyone to see, but if we had taken that many people in for a hike, we’d have trampled so much of what we were there to see. You can canoe through it, see it, and never bother it at all.” He’s fond of a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “Other roads do some violence to Nature, and bring the traveler to stare at her, but the river steals into scenery it traverses without intrusion, silently creating and adorning it, and is free to come and go as the zephyr.”

Paddling along the Des Plaines is proof. It’s generally still and calm, the river running slow beneath overhanging trees—great stretches of the Des Plaines banks in Lake and Cook counties are owned by the counties’ forest preserve districts. The plashing noise of the paddles flushes solitary herons from their posts on downed trees, but otherwise nothing and nobody notices you’re there. Sure, when more than 700 boats pass, there’s going to be some intrusion—and inevitably somebody will drop some litter overboard—but it’s mostly temporary.

The first Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon also set off from Oak Spring Road in Libertyville, one of the few access points that wasn’t on a busy highway, and ended at Dam Number Two. Frese, who’d paddled much of the river, estimated that the distance was about 25 miles, so he called the race a marathon. It turned out to be less by 5.5 miles, but Dam Number Two has remained the finish line because it features a long view up the river where spectators can watch the last leg of the race.

And yes, there are spectators—at least a couple hundred of them. A canoe and kayak race turns out to be a hard-contested battle once it grows out of the province of Boy Scouts and begins welcoming adults hell-bent on winning. As I paddled alongside Frese for about half an hour listening to his tales of past flotillas, at least five two-person teams passed us, shouting their annoyance that we two slow boats were blocking their way. The calls of “Hut! Hut!” at ten-stroke intervals–the sign to switch the side you’re paddling on–announced the serious competitors’ approach.

“For the last half hour we were side by side, stroke by stroke, with another canoe,” Chris Brown said after finishing the 19.5 miles with his paddling partner, Norman Bell. Their time was two hours, 45 minutes—not far behind the winning team, which did it in two hours, 28 minutes, and 53 seconds. “We were doing 68 or 70 strokes a minute,” Brown said, “but we couldn’t gain on them and they couldn’t gain on us. It was pretty exciting and psychologically challenging, but we finally beat them by about 20 yards. That’s a great thing for two sedentary middle-aged men.”

Before starting the race, a man and woman waiting in line to use a porta-potty were comparing notes on the weather and past races. “We’re really just out here to enjoy the river and have a good time,” the woman said. “Yeah, us too,” the man said. “Of course, we make sure we come in in the top ten,” she added.

By most estimates, competitive athletes account for only about a third of the marathon’s paddlers. The rest are just happy to finish—19.5 miles is a long way measured in shoulder-busting strokes. Frese points out that the marathon was never intended to be a serious competition. “I wanted people to see this river—the competitive racers don’t get a chance to see it.”

On the other hand, says Brown, “If it weren’t competitive, you couldn’t get so many people.” Over the past 26 years he’s done the race about 20 times. In the early 1970s Brown was a schoolteacher in Oak Park; looking for something to do outdoors, he wandered into Frese’s store—and wound up sitting and listening for hours to tales of the canoe-bound French voyageurs. Soon Brown was taking his students on canoe field trips, and after a few years he embarked on a career as a river-based environmentalist. Now living in Washington, D.C., where he’s the National Park Service’s chief of planning for river recreation and preservation, Brown comes back to Chicago almost every spring for the marathon, training for a few months on the Potomac.

“The Des Plaines is not a terribly prepossessing river,” Brown says. “It doesn’t have the magnificent scenery you can get paddling in some other metropolitan areas—the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Buffalo Bayou in Houston, the Potomac in Washington. But because it goes through this nice forested greenbelt, you get this semiwild experience in the midst of a huge megalopolis. And at Dam Number Two there’s this vast expanse of picnic area, and everybody pulls out there and has a great time. There’s a chemistry that works for the race.”

Frese organized the marathon for the first 35 years, then handed it off a decade ago to the newly formed Des Plaines River Association. He doesn’t participate every year anymore, just every five. “That 19.5 miles is a hard distance to paddle for a couple in our 70s,” Rita Frese says. “But Ralph would still do it every year if he could. I like it too. I think paddling down a river is better than taking a tranquilizer.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.